20070928

The Boats Don’t Come Anymore

Alapuzha's sorrows


The rise and fall of Alappuzha is a story that is known across the subcontinent. No one cares. No one asks: what are we doing for its revival? KA SHAJI reports


The turbulent sea invades the senses as one steps on to the rickety pier of the defunct port. Mighty waves crash against the pillars of the disintegrating structure. As the surging, foaming waves roar and raise their heads menacingly again and again, you can’t help wonder whether the pier, a symbol of Alappuzha’s lost glory, would last this monsoon. Several of the wooden planks at the mouth of the 1,270-foot long pier have already collapsed, indicating the precarious condition of the historic landmark. Alappuzha MLA and former Tourism Minister KC Venugopal thinks the port, if revived, could handle bulk cargo. Loose cargo such as timber, rice, wheat, cement and fertilisers could be handled here, he pointed out.

“For instance, the revived Alappuzha port could fill the void of the state not having a timber port. As of now, at least 100 truckloads of timber are reaching various parts of Kerala from the Tuticorin Port every day. Given the transportation charges of Rs 7,000 per truck, we are losing Rs 7 lakh daily. This drain of funds could be plugged if we could handle timber vessels here,” says municipal corporation chairperson Lalithamma Somanath.

The rise and fall of Alappuzha, once known as the ‘Venice of the East,’ is closely linked to the port. It had propelled the region to dizzying heights of prosperity and later to its downfall. It was with the construction of the port in 1775 by Raja Kesavadas, former Diwan of Travancore, that Alappuzha gained a coveted slot in the international trade map. A monopoly in the global coir market was just one of the feathers in the crown of this port town in those days. There is no dearth of tales of past glory for Alappuzha. It was Lord Curzon who called it the Venice of the East. Famous travellers of yore like Pliny and Ptolemy had said a lot about this city. With a geographical indicator of its own in the form of ‘Alleppey Coir’ and the developments initiated by Kesavadas, the city had earned several accolades that few other cities could boast of. It was in Mavelikara near the city that one of the five subordinate courts opened in the erstwhile Travancore state in connection with the reorganisation of the judicial system by Colonel Munro in the 19th century.

Going by past records, Alappuzha had been a thriving port city till the late 1960s. At the pinnacle of its glory, nearly 600 steamers used to call at the port annually. Although a major port for the export of cashewnut, coir, copra and spices among others for a long time, the absence of container handling facilities and the commissioning of an all-weather port in Kochi in 1935 hit the seasonal Alappuzha port hard. After 1979, when ships ceased to arrive at the port, the trade circles put in persistent efforts which led to the berthing of a vessel in 1982 for exporting coir. Following the departure of that ship, the port again fell into a slumber until November 1989, when a ship called with 17,000 tonnes of rice from Thailand for the Food Corporation of India. The arrival of the rice ship led to bustling activities at the port and literally infused new blood into the town, albeit for a short while. The occasion had also witnessed the labourers discharging their duties efficiently and helping the vessel leave ahead of schedule. Although the agreement with the shipping companies warranted the labourers to handle 800 tonnes of grain daily, the work force handled nearly 1,000 tonnes. The absence of labour dispute and proper monitoring by a committee headed by the district collector worked wonders.

However, the fresh lease of life for the port lasted till February 19, 1989, by when two more ships called at the port with 21,000 tonnes of rice and 25,000 tonnes of heat. The last time a steamer called at the port was sometime in 1991. A master plan of Rs 500 crore, announced by the previous UDF regime to revive the port for tourism and cargo handling facilities, did not take off. A total of 33 staff, including the pier master, continues to be attached to the port office. Notwithstanding the enthusiasm shown by the municipal authorities and the Port Development Committee, the revival of the port is not an easy proposition. Even the Kochi Port Trust is facing stiff competition from Tuticorin these days. Maybe the easiest option is to repair the pier and preserve it as a historic structure. But this has to be done at the earliest, before the pier suffers irreparable damage. Though the colour of Alappuzha’s soil is red due to the erstwhile Communist uprisings of Punnapra and Vayalar, two senior members of the UPA government belong to this district — Defence Minister AK Antony and Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi. However, Alappuzha failed to translate its political clout into development initiatives.

Moreover, Alappuzha is now a synonym of epidemics like Chikungunya. Drinking water continues to remain its main worry even though the district has plenty of water in its rivers and backwaters. A drinking water project, announced by Antony as chief minister has reached nowhere. Epidemics continue to claim lives.

Backwater tourism with illegal houseboats pose another health hazard as they dump waste and diesel directly to the canals and backwaters. “No one cares,” rues a local resident. However, with the Arabian Sea on its West and an intricate network of criss-crossed lakes, lagoons and fresh water bodies, the Venice of the East has no parallels in the tourism map. A trip in a houseboat along the backwater is a no-miss for any tourist.

Old-timers point out that Alappuzha’s trailblazing beginning has petered out over the years. Although the district headquarter still remains one of the few planned towns in Kerala with its parallel roads and maze of bridges, the town has little space to grow. An absence of water treatment plants, decline of industrial activities, stagnant agriculture sector and trade union strikes have hampered the growth of the district. The coir and cashew workers, who still remain the backborn of the Communist parties, are in extreme poverty due to fluctuating prices. Achuthanadan has given an all-time high support price for rice since last year as a relief for the paddy cultivators.

The Kuttanad region in the district ranks amongst the few places in the world where farming happens below sea level. The snake boat races continue to attract foreign as well as domestic tourists. The crew iron themselves into a single-minded team. A procession is taken out with all types of catamarans (called “Kali-Vallangal”) in tow. The most royal of the lot is the ‘Chundan’ — the creme de la creme. With the boatmen’s song (“Vanchi Pattu”) renting the air, the business is setting in motion.

It’s a cheering sight to see crowds of cycles, goats, fisherwomen with cane baskets, schoolchildren, toddy-tappers with their knives and pots. The coir workers attract one’s attention. It’s an interesting sight as they soak coconut fibre in pools or in canals, beat them out and weave the tough brown strands into long ropes on spindles stretched between endless coconut trees.

“Alappuzha is undoubtedly ageless, mysterious, and perhaps matchless even amidst its ruin. You can catch her live on camera. Words fall short of capturing wondrous Alleppey, God’s own handiwork in time and space,’’ says TC Rajesh, a travel writer from Idukki .

God’s Own Prohibitions

Kerala's banning spree


Kerala is on a banning spree, from booze on the first day of the month to peeing in public places. But life still goes on

K A SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram



GOING BY the growing number of bans and prohibitions imposed on the people of Kerala, the state seems to be under an unadulterated autocracy. First of all, Keralites can’t purchase alcohol on the first day of the month. Though this stricture was introduced by the Oommen Chandy-led Congress government, liquor shops are forced to down shutters on the first of each month under the hammer-and-sickle regime. Chandy had resorted to such a peculiar ban in response to the Church’s protest against the sanctioning of a number of bar-hotels in violation of norms. He had justified his decision by saying that a dry day on the first day of each month would prevent men from spending their entire salary on alcohol.

“What a stupid concept this is. Who gets salary on the first of each month in the post-globalisation period? It is high time to end such gimmicks. Even-die hard prohibitionists would not support such an unrealistic ban,’’ says Echome Gopi, a member of the Kerala Film Academy.

One of the consequences of the ban is that most of the Indian-made foreign liquor retail outlets in the state witness brisk sales on the 30th and 31st of each month. The bar-hotels also make extra profits through the backdoor selling of liquor on dry days at a higher rate. There is yet another segment of the society that benefits from the ban. PV Gopalan, an employee with a nationalised bank in Thiruvananthapuram, belongs to that segment.

Gopalan buys several bottles of liquor ahead of the dry day and sells them at a premium, including to his seniors. Jobless youth in the border villages also find it economical to buy bottles from Karnataka or Tamil Nadu and sell them in Kerala on the dry days. Mahe, which comes under Pondicherry, is a watering hole with hordes of Keralites turning up there on dry days.

Urination in public places is a punishable offence in Kerala, though a large number of people still remain unaware of this. The ban became the subject of debate a few months ago when a district judge directed the police at Thalassery near Kannur to register cases against four youngsters for urinating on the roadside. The youngsters said they were unaware of such a ban and alleged that the judge was acting out of ulterior motives.

Spitting in public places was banned only a few months ago when epidemics started claiming lives in Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha districts. But people are busy violating the ban in the absence of any governmental effort to provide spaces to spit.

The manufacture, retail and consumption of arrack remain banned in Kerala since the past 11 years, even though the state consumes more liquor on an average than any other Indian state. It was then Chief Minister AK Antony who banned arrack in 2006 to win votes of women in lower middle class families. Though Antony failed to win those votes, the ban is still in place and the Achuthanandan government has dared not lift it.

The ban on arrack turned counter-productive when illicit brewers replaced the government network of arrack shops. Even toddy shops are now selling arrack. “Almost all the vacant government land and many forest clearings have been turned into illegal distilleries,’’ says TC Rajesh, a journalist from Idukki. In Idukki, Wayanad and Kannur, country arrack is available easily and openly, making a mockery of the ban. At Kannarampuzha near Pulpally in Wayanad, a local farmer named Markose was seen swimming across the Kabani river holding three packets of Karnataka arrack by his teeth.

“There is no other Indian state with such a number of bans. Successive governments are banning a number of public habits. In fact, the impractical bans are making people law breakers,’’ observes PA Pouran, president of the Kerala unit of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties. IT WAS only a fortnight back that the Achuthanandan government banned plastic carrybags without suggesting any substitutes. Shops now simply hide the carrybags and bring them out promptly if one makes that request.

“When I was in Paris, the civic authorities had banned plastic there. My family had started importing cotton carrybags from India within days of the ban and they were sold in the market for higher prices after affixing prints of my paintings on them. Such initiatives are required in Kerala as well. Plastic ban is welcome but the government must teach people to use cloth and paper bags,’’ suggests noted artist Paris Mohan Kumar.

One of the first actions of Achuthanandan after assuming power was to ban Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the state. That decision came in the wake of the agitation of the people of Plachimada in Palakkad against exploitation of their drinking water by the cola companies. The Kerala High Court later overturned the ban. Kerala was the first state to ban politics on campuses of high schools but no government school in the state remains free from the influence of organised politics now.

The ban on smoking in public places is still in force but the police itself openly flout the law. Most of the law enforcers in the state are habitual smokers, they just can’t implement the ban.

Imposing a ban on driving a two-wheeler without a helmet has turned into an annual ritual. For a specific period every year there is a drive launched against violators, which results in an increase in the sale of helmets. Soon, however, the combing operation is ended. Driving cars without wearing the seat-belt was also banned but the government has told the police not to harass violators.

Enemy’s Enemy Is My Friend

Kerala's Divided Left Front

Factionalism in the CPM has already hurt Chief Minister Achuthanandan. In a new bid, the rival camp takes the support of LDF constituent CPI to target the beleaguered CPM leader


KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram



“The Congress-led United Democratic Front is a big joke in Kerala politics. There is neither unity nor democracy in that front of opportunists and power mongers. They must learn lessons from us on running a coalition based on a common political philosophy and strong ideals.”
VS Achuthanandan, then Leader of the Opposition in Kerala Assembly

YEARS HAVE gone by since Achuthanandan took pride in the unity among partners of the Left Democratic Front (LDF). However, the octogenarian CPM leader is incapable of making a similar statement on his political front now. The factional feud in the state CPM and the political misadventures of other coalition partners has ade the LDF a divided house. The disaffection in the ruling camp is continuing even as rumours of an interim poll are gathering momentum. The LDF would be the big loser if the poll is to happen in the next few months as failures of the government and differences among partners have eroded people’s faith in it. On the contrary, there is an unprecedented unity in the UDF ever since the trouble-making duo of senior Congress leader K. Karunakaran and his son K. Muraleedharan was booted out.

During a high-voltage election campaign last year, Achuthanandan projected himself as a crusader against corruption and the champion of the underdog. The LDF swept the 2006 Assembly elections primarily due to Achuthanandan coming through as a tough, no-nonsense leader who would deliver on his promises. But after more than a year, he is fast turning into the shadow of the man he was during the campaign. The 84-year-old Comrade VS is, according to CPM insiders, a leader under siege.

Pushed to a corner by the faction led by state CPMsecretary Pinarayi Vijayan, Achuthanandan is subject to criticism by coalition partners like the CPI and the Kerala Congress (Joseph). The CM is now distrusted by the CPM’S rank and file, and is constantly reminded by the media that he is failing to deliver on his promises.

Till recently, much of Achuthanandan’s troubles come from just one quarter — Vijayan and his camp. Now Vijayan has taken a backseat in attacking the CM while the CPI’S KE Ismail and Kerala Congress (J) leader PJ Joseph have upped the ante. According to Achuthanandan supporters, there is an unholy nexus between Joseph, Ismail and Vijayan to defame Achuthanandan. “If Achuthanandan reacts to any verbal attack by Ismail and Joseph, Vijayan would dub such remarks as attempts to weaken the coalition. The CPM leadership would be forced to initiate action against him for appeasing the coalition partners. Achuthanandan is aware of their strategy and so he is ignoring all such abuses,’’ says Berlin Kunjannathan Nair, an Achuthanandan loyalist, who was expelled from the party.

According to CPI leaders, party assistant secretary Ismail has a secret agenda to finish off the chief minister politically. Ismail, who is alleged to be close to the real estate mafia in the state, was in the forefront of thwarting the government action against illegal buildings and encroachments in Munnar. He had used foul language against Munnar Mission special officer Suresh Kumar and even indirectly attacked the CM. Ismail had also expressed his displeasure over the state’s acquisition of an ecologically sensitive estate from a powerful lease holder in Nelliampathy in Palakkad. Now, Ismail is blaming Achuthanandan for the government’s lapses in the ISRO-Merchinston Estate deal.

“Forest Minister Binoy Viswam had written to Achuthanandan last month when work on a helipad was on at the site which ISRO had purchased, but he did not do anything,” charged Ismail. According to the Kerala Congress, the rightist party in the LDF, it was Achuthanandan who complicated matters for its chairman PJ Joseph when he was implicated in a case of alleged misbehaviour with a woman passenger on a Chennai-Thiruvananthapuram flight. ACCORDING TO the party, Joseph had to resign from his PWD portfolio after Achuthanandan’s office allegedly circulated details of the incident to the media.

Joseph’s successor TU Kuruvila had to resign from the post as well in view of his reported involvement in an illegal land deal. “The chief minister was unfair to me. He was not even ready to hear my version,” says Kuruvila. In protest, Joseph has decided not to suggest anybody from his party to fill the post of PWD minister. The anti-Achuthanandan brigade in the LDF ousted Kerala Congress (Secular) from the front citing flimsy reasons. The party’s chairman PC George is a bĂȘte noire of Joseph and a confidant of Achuthanandan. The expulsion came about following his disclosures of misuse of power by Joseph and Kuruvila.

The fissures in the LDF came to the fore in its latest meeting when it discussed the demand for an inquiry into the ISRO land deal. Failing to reach a consensus, the LDF asked the government to take appropriate action. However, Achuthanandan is under severe pressure not to order any inquiry. In the meeting, Joseph demanded an inquiry to counter the Opposition agitation. But CPI state secretary Veliyam Bhargavan said that there was no need for an inquiry at any level. He hinted that the CPI would withdraw from the Cabinet in case an inquiry was ordered. The CPI fears any inquiry would force Forest Minister Viswam to resign and would expose Ismail’s dealings. The CPI’s public image has already hit an all-time low due to its opposition to the investigation into ISRO land deal and for torpedoing the Munnar evictions.

Though the RSP and the Janata Dal are supporting Achuthanandan, their leaders are under attack by the Vijayan group. In the meantime, inner-party elections are underway in the CPM and both factions are gunning for each other.

In Kerala, a Smoking Fuse

Communalism in Kerala



With its large Muslim population and strong RSS presence, the state sits on a precipice, reports KA SHAJI from Marad village in Kozhikode district



TILL JANUARY 2002, Marad was just another fishing village near Beypore in Kerala’s Kozhikode district. Today, it is Kerala’s worst communal tinderbox. The village is almost completely under the control of the RSS. Most Muslims here are not ready to sleep in their homes and leave for the houses of relatives in other villages before sunset. A large number of gun-carrying policemen have been posted in the village — the government claims Marad is peaceful.

On the night of January 3-4, 2002, three Hindus and two Muslims were killed on the Marad beach after a squabble between two youths. Among those killed, one Aboobacker was hacked to death in front of the police when he was trying to bury the other four.

In a carefully-planned operation on May 2, 2003, eight Hindu fishermen were killed, and the murderers, believed to be hired, disappeared. The police swiftly took charge of the mosque that had sheltered the culprits and also harboured weapons. Fearing retaliation, the village’s Muslim families left immediately. On June 25, two families returned, only to be sent back by irate Hindus.

According to police sources, about 800 persons are accused in the January 2002 case, and around 300 have been chargesheeted. For the May 2003 incident, Bijli, the son of Aboobacker, is the main suspect. As many as 126 people have been arrested in the case, including three youths below 18 years.

Marad was home to 191 Muslim families. A road divides the hamlet into two portions — the left side is inhabited mostly by Hindu families (known as Arayas), and to the right live the Muslim families. But there are few of them left. Their houses have been looted. Shops they used to run lie closed since the second round of violence. Worse, no one knows where these families are.

In the past, Kerala was known for its relatively harmonious communal relations. However, the post-Babri Masjid demolition period saw communal clashes occurring in Poonthura, Nadapuram, Panur, Taikal and Pathanamthitta. During the past couple of decades, the influence of communal formations has considerably increased in Kerala. Data published by Organiser in its March 25, 2001 issue, said the RSS was running 4,300 shakhas and upashakhas in Kerala. The VHP recently undertook the distribution of tridents in its effort to use religious symbols for mobilisation and creating “self-confidence” among Hindus.

Currently, there are reports of possible links between terrorist outfits and communal groups in the state. Some high-ranking police officers suspect that Kozhikode in north Kerala is emerging as a new base for the terrorist group Al-Badr to plan and execute terror attacks in South Indian cities. Last year, a suspected Al-Badr member, Mohammed Fahad, was arrested in Mysore for planning an attack on the Vikas Soudha in Bangalore and the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore. Police teams from Kerala and Karnataka investigating Fahad’s antecedents say several members of the terrorist outfit may have camped in Kozhikode before the attempt came to light.


20070922

WATCH THIS SPACE..!!





ISRO Purchases Government Land From Dubious Man



The ral estate lobby is behind the acquisition of protected land for a space research institute in Thiruvananthapuram

KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram

Troubles for VS Achuthanandan’s government seem to be growing by the day. The Opposition staged a walkout from the Assembly a day after state Chief Secretary Lizy Jacob went on protest leave after submitting three months notice for voluntary retirement. Achuthanandan had publicly criticised Jacob, saying Rs 1 crore was sanctioned without his knowledge for a helipad at the site of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) proposed educational institute in Thiruvananthapuram. All this came after it emerged that ISRO had bought the land for its institute from a dubious real estate businessman who had forged documents to sell protected government land.

The 82 acres purchased by ISRO for setting up an Indian Institute of Space Technology at Ponmudi in eastern Thiruvananthapuram fall within the zone marked as “ecologically fragile”; the land is to be merged with the adjoining forest area under a state government law. The Opposition is now baying for the blood of Forest Minister Binoy Viswam, a CPI member, as officials in his ministry are alleged to have helped businessman Xavy Mano Mathew get the ecologically fragile status of the land revoked. To make matters worse, ISRO has made it clear that its land deal was perfectly in order and has warned the government of legal action if there is a probe into the deal.

Tempers ran high on the Assembly floor with the Opposition demanding the resignation of Viswam, asking how the land under his ministry came to be in possession of a private individual. Though Viswam is known for his integrity, his party, the CPI, has been accused in the past of hobnobbing with the land mafia. CPI’s state assistant secretary KE Ismail is alleged to be close to Xavy Mathew. Mathew’s connections with the CPM also became a subject of hot debate. The LDF government had recently appointed Mathew, who has also produced several Malayalam films, as one of the directors of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan lives in a house owned by Mathew.

On his part, Mathew has denied that he sold government land to ISRO. “The government had denotified the area and it is no more in the ecologically sensitive zone,” he said. Mathew, however, has a tainted record as a businessman and is facing a set of criminal cases for illegally felling trees in forest areas.

According to former forest minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, the denotification was illegally done to help Mathew, and Viswam knew about it. Viswam refuted the charge and blamed the Congress, saying the businessman had bought the land in March 2005 when the UDF was in power. “Why did the UDF government not take action against Mathew?” he asked.

The irregularities in the deal turned controversial after it was revealed that the land was part of the 707.23-acre Merchiston estate taken over by the government under the Kerala Forest (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act of 2001. It was also discovered that Mathew had sold parts of the estate to many other individuals after getting the estate de-notified. When contacted by TEHELKA, Viswam said he was not aware how the land was de-notified. “We are ready to rectify that mistake. The Chief Minister has already promised 200 acres of land free of cost to ISRO in Ponmudi. It is not wise for ISRO to stick to the deal with Mathew, who has a shadowy record,’’ Viswam said.

ISRO claims it decided to purchase the land from Mathew after getting a letter from Thiruvananthapuram District Collector N. Ayyappan saying no government land was available for the institute. Ayyappan later said that a junior revenue official had sent that letter without his knowledge. Reports also say ISRO had informed the Chief Minister’s office about the deal in advance. Sources say the information was passed on to one of Achuthanandan’s secretaries who is a close relative of Mathew. That secretary kept the information secret.

Kerala Chief Secretary Lizy Jacob is under fire for her role in the affair. According to her, she got a message from the Prime Minister’s Office that Manmohan Singh would soon be coming to inaugurate the institute. She immediately released Rs 1 crore to ISRO for constructing a helipad for the visit, without waiting for the consent of the chief minister or the finance minister. The helipad is now almost ready. Opposition leader Oommen Chandy says the PMO had given no such information to the chief secretary. According to forest department sources, Mathew would be the main beneficiary of the helipad as his eco-tourism venture is taking shape in the vicinity.

ISRO is yet to respond to the state government’s offer of another 200 acres of land free of cost. “Real estate interests of top officials in ISRO also contributed to the present controversy,’’ said a senior forest department officer.


KERALA MINISTER IN THE DOCK



Sreemathy In Trouble


The far of a girl who died mysteriously after a visit by a ‘VIP’ says Health Minister PK Sreemathi was the visitor


KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram

Three years after the sensational Kiliroor sex scandal case in which one victim died mysteriously in hospital after a visit by an unnamed “VIP”, Kerala Health Minister PK Sreemathi finds herself facing allegations of being the visitor responsible for the 17-year-old victim’s death. Sreemathi, who is also a senior leader of the CPM women’s wing, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), is being so accused by the victim’s parents and the Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF). So far, she has kept only a resolute silence.

In 2004, Shari S. Nair died at the Government Medical College Hospital in Kottayam after giving birth to a girl. VS Achuthanandan, who was the Leader of Opposition then, had met Nair at a private hospital where she had been admitted previously. Achuthanandan told media persons after his meeting that the hospital superintendent had told him the condition of the victim had worsened after a visit by a “VIP”. Achuthanandan claimed the superintendent had refused to disclose the VIP’s identity but vowed to arrest the influential involved and even challenged the then UDF government to trace the “VIP”. The UDF government, led by Oommen Chandy, was accused of protecting suspects in the sex scandal.

The situation has been turned on its head now. Nair’s father has approached Achuthanandan, now the CM, to probe Sreemathi’s role in the incident. “My daughter’s condition deteriorated after Sreemathi visited her. We don’t know her role or what exactly transpired between them, but we want a thorough probe behind by daughter’s death,” Nair’s father CN Surendran said in his petition to Achuthanandan. The Opposition UDF is demanding nothing less than Sreemathi’s resignation.

Nair’s post-mortem report had revealed that there was a high amount of lead in the teenager’s blood. According to AIDWA state secretary KK Shailaja, Sreemathi had called on Nair to enquire about her health. “Such scandalous accusations would prevent women from entering public life. Oommen Chandy, who was shielding all the influential persons accused in the case, is now engaging in character assassination,’’ she said.

Mahila Congress state president Shanimole Usman alleges Sreemathi visited Nair to tell her not to reveal Sreemathi’s association with the son of a senior leader of the Pinarayi Vijayan faction in the CPM. Usman said a probe would uncover the links of the sons of two powerful CPM leaders with Anagha, the daughter of a temple priest who, along with her family, committed suicide after her name figured in the scandal. “If Sreemathi is innocent, why is the CPM opposing an inquiry on her alleged role,’’ Usman asks.

Says Surendran, “Even the CBI denied us justice. Many, including the chief minister, know that most of those arrested were only small fry.” Surendran is now demanding a fresh CBI probe.

The CBI’s chargesheet in Nair’s case says she was lured into a sex racket by individuals on the promise of getting her roles in television serials. The investigation revealed that one Kochumon had introduced the girl to Latha Nair, who was supposed to get her a role in serials and music videos, in August 2003. The chargesheet says Nair was later forced to consume liquor and gang-raped. When she got pregnant, she was referred to a private hospital in Kottayam. She had been diagnosed with an acute intestinal disorder.

20070917

DAM HAS KERALA GREENS UP IN ARMS


Green Signal To Kill Athirapally

KA Shaji

Thrissur

Another Indian river is set to die. Kerala’s Chalakkudy will soon no longer have the water to feed its famous waterfalls, Athirapally and Vazhachal. Ignoring the apprehensions of tribals and conservation activists, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) has given the green signal to the VS Achuthanandan government to go ahead with its long-pending controversial project to set up a 163MW hydel power plant by blocking the river just before the Athirapally falls.

Though the power generation target remains small, the project will wipe out the region’s rich biodiversity and render hundreds of adivasis homeless. Located on the Western Ghats, the riverine forests of Athirapally- Vazhachal host a unique ecosystem. Intermingled with swamps, they support a large number of rare and endangered species of plants and animals. While scientists are still discovering many new species here, the project is posing a major threat to their survival.In spite of the stiff local resistance to the project under the banner of the Chalakkudy River Protection Forum, the MOEF is in no mood to relent. Both the ruling Left Democratic Front and the Opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front support the project and have exerted pressure on the Union ministry to give its approval. The MOEF had recently denied permission to another controversial hydel project at Pathrakadavu as it fell within the buffer zone of the Silent Valley National Park.

According to the Kerala State Electricity Board’s own opinion, the project will require the diversion of over 130 hectares of highly sensitive riverine forest land. An environmental disaster in the making, the project will sever the only link between the Peechi Vazhani Wildlife Sanctuary and the Idamalayar basin of the Periyar river. The vital elephant corridor between the Parambikulam Sanctuary and the Pooyamkutty forests will also be affected. Apart from being home to the tiger and leopard, the forests also host the hornbill, the Nilgiri langur, the liontailed macaque and the rare Cochin forest cane turtle.

On the tourism front, the project would wipe out the Athirapally and Vazhachal waterfalls, which draw six lakh domestic and foreign tourists every year.

In 1998, the Kerala government came up with the proposal for a hydel project using the tail-end waters of the existing Poringalkuthu dam (constructed across the Chalakkudy in Thrissur district). In February 2000, the state government cleared the diversion of 138.60 hectares of forest land for building the Athirapally dam. But the delay in getting the MOEF nod had affected construction work.

According to Kerala Electricity Minister AK Balan, the government went ahead with the project following an environmental impact study conducted by the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute in Thiruvananthapuram. “That has addressed almost all the issues the environmentalists, have raised.’’ he claims. The impact study, in fact, provided the green signal for the Union ministry’s clearance.

However, environmentalists have found faults in the study. “It is silent on the actual volume of trees that would be submerged and the submergence of over 402 rare plants,” says Mohandas of the River Protection Forum. “The report was prepared in a hurry after a three-month-long study in 1996. To get an authentic picture of the area’s biodiversity, the study should have covered all seasons. Most birds breed during February-April, this period was not covered,’’ he says.

“The report admits that the field visit was scheduled during the monsoon, when the river was flooded. That made the collection of parameters diffcult and in some cases impossible,” says noted environmentalist Prof MK Prasad.

According to Dr RVG Menon of the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad, the 144km-long Chalakkudy river system has a record of 99 fish species. “Five new fish species were recently discovered in the Chalakkudy; 71 of the 99 species recorded from the basin are found in the zone where the dam is proposed,” he says.

“Do remember that the Chalakkudy is just 144km long but it is the fifth largest river in Kerala,” warns social activist CR Neelakandan. “The river has been hugely dammed already. There are six dams for power and one for irrigation. At least five lakh people from 19 panchayats and two municipalities depend on the river. Once the new dam comes up at Athirapally, it will affect all these people.”

Apart from biodiversity, the dam will also threaten the traditional way of life of the Kadars, the local adivasis, who have been living here for hundreds of years. Any relocation will wipe out their links with the forest.

Though major political parties are in favour of the project, local resistance is now gathering momentum. The protest has taken an interesting turn recently with the decision of 33 organisations to fight the project together.


20070907

COMRADES STRIKE GOLD ON THE SILVER SCREEN

Cuba Mukundan And AKG

K A Shaji / Thiruvananthapuram

Is cinema beginning to whirl too closely to politics in Kerala? It looks like it is, given the success of two recent films: one a commercial movie on the degeneration of Communist parties in Kerala and the other a biopic made by acclaimed director Shaji N. Karun on legendary Marxist AK Gopalan. The two hits have come at a time when the mainstream Left parties are facing serious allegations of shadowy dealings with the land mafia and businessmen of questionable credentials.

Another film based on politicians is in the making, and it is expected to be a scathing exposure of CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. Significantly, the return of Left politics into the Malayalam film industry is annoying Vijayan loyalists more than others. They are more worried about the new trend since discussions are on to produce almost half-a dozen films which would discuss the “Kerala-model Communism”.

“Earlier, it was the media syndicate involving journalists that targeted us. Now it’s the turn of a film syndicate,” a CPM central committee member, notorious for his dubious deals, told a meeting of the party’s youth wing in Thrissur. “We must be vigilant about their anti-party motives,” he cautioned the delegates.

The first of the two films, filmmaker Lal Jose’s Arabikkatha (An Arabian Tale), was released last month and dwelt on CPM politics in north Kerala. Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan was in the audience at the premiere. Noted actor-turned-director Sreenivasan, who played the lead role in the film, says: “The film was an attempt to highlight the negative trends in the Communist movement in Kerala. It is a socially relevant theme, timely and topical.”

“As a native of Patyam (a Marxist stronghold in the highly volatile Kannur district), I know the pulse of the Communist movement. My awareness, triggered by the erosion of political values, also helped me," he said. Sreenivasan said he was apprehensive about how the party cadre would treat the film. “The feedback is encouraging. Arabikkatha has been hailed as a film that tells the truth,” he explained. “It was released at an opportune time when the state was abuzz with discussions on the rival groups in the CPM represented by Achuthanandan and Vijayan. Even the names of the hero — Mukundan — and his party archrival – Karunan — have been carefully chosen to rhyme with the originals. All this helped the film at the box office,” said film critic CS Venkiteswaran. The hero ‘Cuba’ Mukundan is a full-time Communist party worker in Chemmannur (meaning, land of red soil), a remote village in Kerala. He gets the title ‘Cuba’ for his dedication to party work, and loves anything and everything about Cuba and China. Though the film acknowledges that the mass movement had degenerated into the party machinery’s obsession with power, Mukundan continues to carry out party orders unflinchingly. Gradually, he becomes popular with the people and is shunted out by his party rival Karunan, who frames Mukundan’s father, also a party worker, in a case of embezzling public money. As his father dies, Mukundan has to repay the debt and Karunan persuades him to go to the Gulf to earn money.

But the Middle East is no Kerala and Mukundan stumbles onto a globalised world where he has to do menial work to survive. Here he falls for a Chinese girl selling pirated CDs of Malayalam films. But he admires the land of Mao Zedong more than the girl. Subsequent events show the hardships endured by Mukundan until he realises the value of labour and returns home. “Despite its many shortcomings, the film raises a few fundamental questions that trouble the Malayali psyche — the idea of a worker/labourer and the concept of labour. Who is a labourer? What is labour?” observed Venkiteswaran.

There are also questions the film raises about the party in Kerala. Blinded by the classical definition of proletariat, the Communist parties have not been able to address the radical changes this identity has undergone — from citizen to consumer. Once the mass movement turned into a party, it had no clue as to the changing dimensions in the role of workers, their relationship with various aspects of labour, their desires and questions of identity. Mukundan is confronted with these dillemas once he is displaced from his ‘natural’ habitat of local politics to the internationalised labour economy of the Gulf. If Chinese communism is seen as paradise by the Communist worker in Kerala, the reality of Mukundan’s girlfriend shatters the myth.

“Though the primacy of labour — the bedrock of the ideology he believed in — is realised in the end by Mukundan, it is as something essentially agrarian and physical; we find him a happy man after a few years of physical labour on the farm. Obviously, the urban-technological realm and the labour associated with it is not “labour” for him. He never manages to find a foothold in the urban jungle, which is portrayed as the natural habitat of the clever and the cunning. As a result he turns out to be a pre-industrial Communist of the agrarian variety, rather than an industrial proletarian. In that sense the film is about local nostalgia versus global reality,’’ Venkiteswaran further observes. The other film, AKG, the docu-drama on Marxist stalwart AK Gopalan Nambiar, popularly known as AKG, is also not going well with the ‘new age’ Left politics, even though it was produced by the party’s own cultural wings, the Purogamana Kala Sahithya Sangham and the Sakthi Cultural Forum, Dubai.

AKG, who led a large number of agitations for farmers and workers all over the country, was the first Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Acclaimed director Shaji N. Karun, who said nothing against the party while turning back the pages of history, scores a key point with the film: “Don’t deviate from the path of service and sacrifice established by AKG and others like him.” The film took five years to complete and it was released when the media was teeming with stories of CPM leaders’ nexus with the unholy capitalists. “He was really a people’s leader. My effort was to show the great humanist. Cutting across party barriers, AKG empathised with the poor and the downtrodden. The film happened only because of the respect and affection he commands even now,” Karun explained. The first shot of the film was canned in Kayyur in Kannur district, where AKG had led a farmers’ struggle. The scene was set during the Amaravati agitation of June 1961 when AKG had gone on a hunger strike for the people displaced by the Idukki dam. During the premiere of the film, MP P. Karunakaran, AKG’s son-in-law, described the film as an attempt to recreate the eternal moments in the life of a great leader who struggled for the oppressed and the downtrodden. “It is the first people’s film in Kerala. The actors used for mass rallies and refugee camps were common people, instead of junior artistes” he said.

Though Karun is silent on the degeneration of AKG’s party post-liberalisation, the viewers feel the difference instantly. Another feature film in the making on the Marxist aberrations is a collective work of a few party sympathisers in Kozhikode. The film, yet to be named, is also probing the relevance of classical Marxism in an age of abject consumerism.